Dust and wind

Joe Ely sends a sad, beautiful Letter to Laredo

He's the mariachi, the fighter, the lover, the warrior, the storyteller, the rancher, the fugitive--each character driven by deep passions for women, for family, for an imagined better life on the other side of the border or the ocean. The title track is the album's centerpiece: Ely tells someone (the listener) to send to his lover a letter proclaiming his innocence of a crime for which he has been convicted.

"I jumped bail from Sweetwater County, now I'm on the run," Ely sings against a haunting torrent of notes strummed on a guitar. "On my head is a five number bounty for a crime I never done/Take this letter to Laredo to the one I love/Tell her to stay low beneath the stars above." Like so many other tracks on Letter to Laredo, the song sticks with you long after its last notes fade; it is like grit between your teeth, far different than the synth-and-drum machine version on 1984's Hi-Res.

"Everything almost kinda takes place in the desert or the middle of nowhere, and the record kinda feels that way," Ely says. "Maybe I read too many Cormac McCarthy books the last couple of years or something, and it's rubbin' off or something. Songs like 'Letter to Laredo' and 'Saint Valentine' all kind of have this small-town feeling out in the middle of the desert, so it's almost like a concept record except it's not.

"I didn't write each story to interrelate with the others, but when I was placin' the songs on the album, I almost tried to place them to where you'd think there was a story."

But Ely does not peddle cheap stereotypes or clichés. Like his longtime hero, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, or El Paso author McCarthy, Ely tells familiar stories in such a way that they become new legends, larger-than-life moments. When he threatens to take back the land Pancho Villa stole from his father in "Gallo Del Cielo" (written by Tom Russell), Ely is not just the narrator of an old tale, but the very active character in a very real story that unfolds over seven beautiful minutes. And when he tells of leaving for Europe after "She Finally Spoke Spanish to Me" (her only word: adios), it adds a sad denouement to a story he began in 1977 when he said "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me."

"This record feels like a complete circle from the time you put on the first song till you get around to the last song," Ely says. "You feel like you've been down a certain highway in a certain part of the country, and you kind of feel like you have been to a certain place--a musical place. I tried to actually make it to where you could feel the temperature and the dirt. 'Course, that didn't really come till halfway through the album.

"It started out just kinda writin' songs and then I'd go back through old notebooks and current things and I'd say, 'Oh, well, here's something that I wrote in El Paso in '84,' and I'd find a little passage I could use. It kinda worked with the other things I'd been workin' with. Funny how things like that work."

Surprisingly, Letter to Laredo was not the album Ely originally planned to release. Eighteen months ago he began work on a disc that would feature only him and his acoustic guitar a la Johnny Cash's 1994 American Recordings. But his plans changed when a friend called to tell him a European flamenco guitar player named Teye was in town and wanted to know if Ely might want to use him on any new material.

At first, Ely balked at the request, but just as quickly reconsidered; he had at least two songs he had written during a recent trip to Spain that he thought might benefit from the flamenco's sound, and Ely invited Teye to his home studio.

"And when he played," Ely recalls, "it just added this weird thing that I guess I'd always secretly loved but I never thought that I could ever use on a record--especially when I got a slide player like Lloyd Maines, who's my all-time favorite steel guitar player and slide player when he plays dobro. And so when I got those two guys together, man, it was like some kind of long-lost sound that I was not sure if I'd ever heard before. If I had heard it, I didn't know where from, and I didn't know what to do with it.

"Teye left the next day and I kinda rassled with this other record, but I always came back to those two songs--'Run Preciosa' and one that's not on this album, a song that never completely came together for this record. I called him up in Europe a couple of months later and he said he was comin' back to Austin, and we started workin' again on a new set of songs. And I found myself writin' new songs and pushin' the other album aside and writin' from scratch a whole new record."

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